Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
January 15, 2010

That “Looting”


(Click for larger size)

I think media has got to be very careful in using the term “looting” in the midst of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, especially given how much that term calls to mind generations of violent protests and riots over civil rights. (One of The BAG’s most widely circulated posts — Outside the Crawfish Shak — had to do with exactly this, as media headed down the same path in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)

Compare these two paragraphs from the same AP story, “Struggle to aid Haitians as fears of unrest rise,” dated Friday, for example. The article’s second paragraph is followed by the eighth:

Pockets of looting flared across the capital. Small bands of young men and teenagers with machetes roaming downtown streets helped themselves to whatever they could find in wrecked homes.

“People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation,” U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva. “If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat.”

Looking at this photo and caption from MSNBC (which specifically states that the “looters” are fighting over food), what I’m wondering is:

Is it “looting” if people are starving and desperate, and have no other recourse but to “steal” food? And then, what are the racial dynamics of using the term “looting” — instead of “stealing,” or just “taking” — particularly when the photo specifically features young black men?

(Photo: Olivier Laban Mattei / AFP – Getty Images caption: Haitian looters fight for food in a street of Port-au-Prince. US military leaders said, they would pour 10,000 troops in earthquake-battered Haiti in the coming days, warning that it was urgent to bring water and food to prevent deaths and unrest.)

  • lesley

    They could as easily be passing a box from one to the other, as they could be looting.

  • EvilPoet

    Looting? Looks to me like that are trying their hardest to make the best of a horrible situation.

  • Kate

    When I first heard the term “looting” when it comes to food and water and maybe things to help with shelter, I thought to myself “This 59 year old, middle class white woman would become the Queen of “looting” if I was there and saw the need”. It’s outrageous to use the term given these conditions where lives will be saved if supplies can be found and the delay is so prolonged for aid to arrive. It’s smart to do so, resourceful even.

  • Progressive Mom

    How dare we apply a purely capitalist word –”looting”– to describe people who are living with death, destruction and little hope all around them? How deep does capitalism run in our souls that we cannot hold back even when we know people have no food and water; when we know that before this disaster the majority of Haitians got their water and food supply daily; when we know there is no grocery store to buy products, no clean water running through pipes, no fuel to drive elsewhere for food….when we know all that, how can we use such a loaded verb?
    Was it here on BagNewsNotes during Katrina that I saw a discussion comparing two photos: one of white people who were “taking” goods from a drug store and one of black people who were “looting” a supermarket?

  • g

    Has anyone viewed non-American news coverage of this? Is it only American news networks that characterize it as “looting” or is that term used universally?

  • lytom

    The problem I have with the “redistribution” of food, water,… etc is that those who get it “forcefully” are the strongest and maybe more capable to survive even without demanding the aid this way. Survival of the fittest comes to mind. This leaves the most vulnerable members of the society on the verge of despair.
    I cannot help but wonder how this type of behavior will solve anything and this type of behavior should not be excused.

  • Wordsmith

    This isn’t looting – this is survival, self-preservation.

  • lytom

    Just an addition:
    There is already a thriving black market where water, gasoline and food are sold…Where do you think these products are coming from and who benefits?

  • janinsanfran

    Salon had an excellent article by Ben Wisner on what the impacts of a disaster are really like, before the media misconstrues them. He would describe what we see here as “Self-provisioning to meet basic needs …” What do we expect people thrown back on their own devices to do when disaster brings normal government and commerce crashing down?

  • donna

    Not that Haiti hasn’t been looted by capitalists for centuries…. lol….

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Yes, the link to the “Crawfish Shak” with the picture you’re talking about is in the second line of the post. It was interesting to see it again. That post also has a photo of people “looting” necessities in the aftermath of the hurricane.

  • mon_oeil

    To focus strictly on the photo I read it in a very different way than two men arguing and looting. The young man at the left is saying to the one at the right as he hands him the rather heavy box, “Hey man could you help me? Watch out this box is heavy so handle it very carefully, we need every item that is in there so don’t let it fall. Also don’t hurt your back because we have many more items to charge from the distribution center.”

  • D Bradsher

    “Looting” is a very loaded word. These people are not looting. They are on recon duty…finding and distributing supplies. It takes the strong ones to do this work. What they find will be used by many people. These people have large extended families with many needs.
    People are quick to judge others in a situation they know nothing about. I’ve been in a natural disaster or two and you do what you have to do. It is survival, folks.

  • D

    It depresses me to see this media hype of chaos and “looting.”
    In some ways, the Katrina fiasco was not only the product of a Republican administration’s incompetence; but also fed by media hype. (The media sensationalization of “rampant” (black) “violence” in New Orleans crippled emergency response and aid even more than Heckuva Job Brownie.) Then, long after the fact, we find out that, surprise surprise, the violent anarchy “throughout” New Orleans in the wake of the disaster was nothing of the sort. Some guy heard a few stray shots; another guy saw someone steal beer.
    And because of that, thousands of old, sick helpless people suffered for a week, utterly abandoned. (abandoned because of cowardice fed by misinformation.)
    The “armed gangs of machete-wielding thugs” and “rampant looting” talked about in the press may be everywhere in Haiti. But (given the past media hype), I rather doubt it. I am sure there are people trying to take advantage. And other people trying hard just to make it, just to get by. And many other people doing everything they can to help each other out. That’s the way societies are. I hope that the “looting” and “anarchy” won’t keep aid and response teams out this time.

  • lytom

    Non fiction book called “Zeitoun” written by Dave Eggers (McSweeney 2009)tells the story of Syrian in New Orleans. It is not about the violence from the people, but about organized violence and profiling by military toward people who have survived the disaster. There is a section describing the birth of “Guantanamo” right in the heart of New Orleans constructed by military responders and government to contain people who have done no harm. The human rights, the constitutional rights are just not part of it.

  • anonymous

    Nice Michigan Jersey! It looks pretty orderly, except the borderline look on the one kid’s face.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes